Redwood City has been one of the better local governments on the Peninsula when it comes to dealing with the HSR/Caltrain project, unwilling to follow Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton down a NIMBY path of trying to impose unworkable changes onto the project, and certainly unwilling to threaten outright opposition to it. And yet Redwood City's staff are still capable of framing the debate in rather skewed terms.
Tonight the Redwood City Council is going to discuss a plan for public outreach (PDF) on the HSR/Caltrain project. It's nice to see a proactive approach to engaging city residents, rather than Palo Alto's quick cave to a small number of HSR critics.
In the comments on recent Peninsula-related posts here, there has been a robust discussion of NIMBYism, how to challenge it, whether it's a serious threat to the HSR project or is something we're giving too much attention to - the squeaky wheel getting the blog's grease. What the Redwood City plan suggests, though, is that the problem is with how the Peninsula cities define "stakeholders" in such a vital project. Redwood City's approach provides a too-narrow definition that excludes the most numerous group of stakeholders of all - the thousands of city residents whose lives will be improved, who will save money and time and be freed from the dangers of at-grade diesel trains by the HSR/Caltrain project.
(Note: it's not immediately clear to me if this is Redwood City's document or Caltrain's - I believe it's the city's, but even if it's Caltrain's the criticisms offered here still apply.)
Here's how the city's packet reads:
1. Overarching Principle: From a community relations standpoint, the development and implementation of the HSR/Caltrain electrification facilities must take place with profound attention to the interests of the surrounding communities, stakeholders, and sensitive audiences, offer an augmented level of community outreach, communication, and involvement, and minimize negative impacts and effects on the communities in which the project will operate.
Although that sounds reasonable, the way it's framed is setting HSR/Caltrain up to fail, even in Redwood City. The goal here shouldn't be to just "minimize negative impacts" - shouldn't we also be trying to "maximize positive impacts"? Of more concern is the list of proposed stakeholders:
2. Redwood City Stakeholders:
a. Property owners/residents/businesses within 1/2 mile of the alignment
b. Sequoia Station retailers
c. Boards and Commissions (Bike/Ped, Housing, Planning, Historic Resources)
d. Downtown Business Group
e. Chamber of Commerce
f. City staff
g. City elected officials
h. Supervisor Rose Jacobs Gibson
i. Assemblyman Ira Ruskin
j. Senator Joe Simitian
k. Neighborhood Associations
l. Redwood City Elementary School District
m. Faith communities within 1/2 mile of alignment
n. Advocates for a HSR station in Redwood City
o. Opponents of an HSR station in Redwood City
3. Sensitive/critical audiences
a. Residents and business within 1/4 mile of the alignment (particular attention to bilingual outreach)
b. Schools within 3/4 mile of the alignment
c. Motorists - in general
d. Caltrain users
It's not that I object to the inclusion of specific groups or individuals here. Instead it's the premise, that privileges those next to the alignment at the exclusion of those who are not.
Don't other Redwood City residents deserve consideration? Even if they don't currently use Caltrain, but might use an electrified Caltrain or use HSR? Redwood City and Caltrain wouldn't be doing their job if they didn't find a way to do outreach to those near the line, but neither should they stop there. A full picture of the community's thoughts, and the fairest possible assessment, can only be gained if the city as a whole is involved.
It's not right that those nearest the line get more consideration. Everyone has to live with the effects of HSR/Caltrain, whether it's built or not. This is true of drivers, pedestrians, and so on. Yet we live in a state where our public review process, and our community outreach process, is skewed toward those who live near a proposed piece of infrastructure, often to the exclusion of everyone else.
In extreme cases, that would be good. When the Century Freeway (Interstate 105) was built, it destroyed numerous and entire neighborhoods. That's a classic case of where the interests of those most directly impacted by infrastructure should be emphasized. And yet when you're talking about rebuilding and improving an existing rail corridor, you're not talking about people losing homes, or whole neighborhoods being plowed under.
Redwood City's proposed public outreach plan is a good start. But for it to be an effective plan, it needs to cast a wider net, and ensure that the voices of the city's numerous HSR supporters are not unfairly excluded from the process, as they seem to have been next door in Menlo Park, Atherton, and Palo Alto.